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September 15, 2019

Tale of Two Photographers

“Want to go photograph a Pro Wrestling match Thursday evening?” I asked Sito Colón as I walked into Overland Photo Supply to grab some film.

Who could say “no” to that? Well, Sito didn’t.

I gave him the logistics of the deal, that it’s at Kanza Hall in Overland Park, the time, and proceeded to tell him the back story.

Sterling Riegel comes to the aid of his brother Logan, in full headlock by Death Threat Army during a Journey Pro Wrestling match at Kanza Hall in Overland Park.

The Riegel Twins (the pro wrestlers) are sons of friends of mine from school and this was my second time photographing them. I grew up with Ted Riegel and Kim Glasgow. He was in my grade, and we were great friends, and Kim, who was a year behind us, lived a block from my house. They were high school sweethearts who later married and gave birth to twin boys who would eventually become Pro Wrestlers, among other things, I’m sure. But the story goes further back than that. Kim’s Dad, Gary Glasgow, and my dad worked together in Kansas City in the 60s and were friends. It’s because of Gary (and some other events) that we ended up moving from Kansas City to Lamar. It’s always nice to see Gary ringside for the bouts.

I also explained that each team has a schtick.

Last time I photographed The Riegel Twins they took on the Buddha Brothers who started each bout by meditating on yoga mats, and they have “Namaste” stitched on the backside of their trunks. I’m not making this up. I told him about the wrestler who owns a winery up north and his act is that he’s a “sophisticated gentleman” and he talks trash on all the lower class members of the audience, which, in his eyes, is everyone but him. He drinks wine in the ring. He took on some pretty boy who looks like Freddy Mercury, oiled up and wearing bright colors, who pulls lolly pops out of his trunks during the match and force feeds them to his opponents…or the referee, if need be. Seriously…I’m not making this up.

Sito was hooked at this point and we met just before the matches started.

“I said ‘Sure!'” Sito shares, adding that “Images started going through my head and I could just imagine some of the shots I might be able to get…smokey bar…dim lighting…missing teeth…people with obvious emotional issues…”

“Yeah, I think I can work with that,” Sito continued.

If you’ve not been to a Journey Pro wrestling match, it’s pretty colorful, and not just in the ring. The fans are faithful and know the wrestlers by name and history. Like watching an old melodrama, when the villains come on they boo…and when the hero comes out they cheer. I can’t think of any other event where the whole audience, in unison, would chant “Touch his dick…touch his dick…touch his dick…,” but I witnessed it with my own eyes and ears, with a little chanting of my own, I might add.

And like what you would see on TV with WWE, wrestlers do randomly jump into the ring to “beat the crap” out of a team they may seek revenge on. These matches, like soap operas, oftentimes carry over from one month to the next as the faithful fans get to see their heroes annihilated one month, then do a surprise revenge attack the next, all to hearty jeers and cheers.

Equipment Check

We hadn’t talked about what cameras we were going to shoot beforehand, so I thought it interesting that we both brought Four Thirds cameras for the event.

“The atmosphere was already pretty electric,” Sito said. “I put a 24-80 2.8 lens on my Olympus EM-1 and checked my exposure.  Lighting wasn’t too bad for a bar, but still had to crank my ISO to 8000 to get the shutter speed to about 1/500 – figured that was fast enough.”

If you’re not familiar with Four Thirds, it was a system of lenses designed by Kodak and Olympus specifically for digital SLR cameras. The main (or maybe only) players using the system are Olympus, Panasonic (Lumix), and just a LIIIIIITLE BIT of Leica.

One advantage is the lenses can be swapped amongst the team members. My first Four Thirds camera was an Olympus E-PL5. It’s TINY and perfect for traveling. The lenses are also small, which for a traveler like me, is perfect because of how much equipment I can fit into my backpack. I could take this camera and a couple of lenses skiing, fitting easily in my pockets. I can’t do that with a Canon 50D and a single lens. The E-PL5 shoots RAW, has decent speed and resolution, and proved to be a “good enough camera for what it did.” I’m not in LOVE with it, but it was perfect for its size. And all the lenses I purchased for it work on my Lumix GH5…and vise versa.

Sito and I could also have shared lenses that night if he needed one of mine, or if I wanted to nick his fancy little zoom lens.

You can really see the noise, or grain, in this photo. It’s fine for this type of photo, but if these were senior pics and the skin looked like this, I’m sure there would be some raised eyebrows.

One downfall of Four Thirds is that, because of the small sensor, photos tend to have more noise (grain) and it’s evident in many of my shots. For Pro Wrestling, I think it adds to the fun. If these were portraits, I wouldn’t want the noise on the flesh tones…well, the models wouldn’t, anyway.

Lumix GH5 Four Thirds Mirrorless camera with Olympus 17mm, 1.8 lens attached.

For the fight that night I had my Lumix GH5 with an Olympus 17mm 1.8 lens. That sounds really wide angle, and it is, but with the size of the sensor on the GH5 it really translates to the equivalent of a 34mm lens on a full frame 35mm camera…good enough for the close quarters of the ring. I won’t get ALL the shots, but it’s fine.

I’ll add that I was so impressed with Sito’s 24-80 2.8 Olympus lens that I commented on it after the match. He told me there was a used one for sale at Overland Photo Supply where he works. I grabbed it the next morning.

I like how I can bump the ISO of the GH5 pretty high compared to older DSLRs I’ve got. I was shooting at 3200 (I should have done like Sito and pushed it higher).

The Eye of the Beholder

Now begins the story of two photographers, with almost the exact same equipment, covering the same event, yet creating two totally different, personally unique galleries…both being equally impactful.

I love this about photography. When the person behind the camera finally finds that place that makes the pictures his or hers, it becomes art. It’s THEIR interpretation of what they see…or what they want you, the viewer, to glean from what they saw.

Looking at our galleries you can see that Sito and I chose to focus on the same subjects, inside the ring, but there’s as much going on outside of it. We could just as easily, without communicating, shot totally different things. Reaction of the fans, perhaps, or just the wrestlers as they were being tossed over, or jumping through, the ropes onto folding chairs and tables. The bar is always buzzing as tenders try to keep up with the drinking needs of the fans and other patrons. It’s a busy place on wrestling night.

Sito shot black and white. As he showed me his shots during breaks, I could tell he had a lot of keepers.

“Then I thought, do I shoot color or black and white?” Sito explained. “Usually I shoot everything in color, and while editing convert some to black and white, but for some reason just felt like putting the camera on monochrome – I’d be shooting black and white, and also see black and white in the camera viewfinder. I just thought the photos would have a grittier feel without color. Kinda like the wrestling I watched as a kid on my little 13” black and white TV…”

I, on the other hand, shot in color, as I didn’t know what I was going to do, yet. Last time I shot wrestling I did black and white. I had thought I would do it again, as I liked what I got, but I didn’t eliminate the option I would work in color this time. Anyone who has seen my stuff knows that for me to go color, it really has to DESERVE it and add to the photos story.

One goal for my shots was to use the ropes as a key character as much as possible. I wanted a point of reference and a framework for the shots…but more than that, I wanted them a little more “in your face” than the last time I shot these guys.

Same shot of Sito’s black and white gritty old TV feel pics compared to my comic book, Marvel feel shots.

I shot an earlier match, before The Riegel Twins’ came out, to get some practice on position and make sure my cameras were giving me what I wanted. My focus after that was the match between The Riegel Twins and Tommy Vendetta & Aaron Orion, aka Death Threat Army. After I thought I was done shooting, I was chatting with Kim, Ted, and Gary when Kim nodded her head toward the ring and said “There’s a woman fighting a man in the ring right now…you may want to grab your camera and shoot that.” And she was right!

After I downloaded the photos and sorted out the ones I liked, it became apparent to me that the action, facial expression, and costumes in these are over the top. So I decided to go over the top with my adjustments. I wanted these to look “graphic novel” or “comic book” or something from a Marvel movie. Using Adobe Bridge and Camera Raw Filter, I played with a few shots until I got the look I wanted, then swept through and adjusted the rest. I was pleased.

I think what Sito and I have disproved is the myth photographers perhaps hate hearing the most: “He has a good camera…he takes good pictures.” Not that we didn’t have good cameras for this, but the point being that cameras don’t take pictures…people do. And it’s what we see, choose to share, and how we share it that is the art of it…not whatever pixel grabber happens to be in our hands.

The Galleries

For those who like stats, Sito and I shot surprisingly similar for the night. Sito clicked off 1996 shots and I totaled 1980. From that, Sito walked away with 92 “keepers” and I had 104 that I liked. We both posted our complete “likes” to Facebook. For the galleries below, we’ve pulled out our absolute favorites from the night.

See for yourself. I present first Sito’s gallery, then mine.

Sito's gallery

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My Gallery

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Russell Viers

I'm just a guy who finds the world an interesting place and likes to capture certain moments with a camera. They aren't for sale, or anything. I just like them. Well, usually. I've taken a lot of photos I don't like, as well.

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